George Archibald: How Cranes Bring People Together

Wisconsin readers, or any that might be within driving distance of Madison, WI, should know about a rare opportunity to hear George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, tomorrow evening, March 8th.  George will give a presentation, “Cranes Across Borders: Bringing People Together,” highlighting the power of cranes – whose migrations often cross multiple borders – to unite people inspired by their mystery and beauty, and concerned for their continued survival in the modern world.

Dr. George Archibald with Karen Willes, January 2016. (Photo by Claire Timm)

Dr. George Archibald with crane protector Karen Willes, in Tallahassee, FL; January 2016. (Photo by Claire Thomas Timm)

George’s presentation is scheduled from 7 – 8:30 p.m., at the Madison Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin Street.  It is sponsored by the Dane County Chapter of the United Nations Association.


Tracking Whooping Cranes: Winter 2016, Part 2

This is Part 2 of the Winter 2016 news to report about the whooping cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population.

Below, you will find reports on:

– The Last Flight of Operation Migration

– The Release of the Class of 2015

– News of the two surviving wild chicks of 2015, and their families

– An update on the 8 Direct Autumn Release chicks of 2015, and the two surviving Parent-Reared chicks.

The Last flight of Operation Migration

It was a long slow final migration for Operation Migration and its six Class of 2015 ultralight-led whooping cranes. It was made so mostly by weather conditions that kept the project grounded for long stretches waiting for the perfect conditions necessary for the cranes and ultralights to fly together.

Time finally ran out while waiting for those conditions for the final brief 23 mile flight and the cranes were crated and driven to the winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge so they could be released and eased into their real lives in the wilderness. They could be off on their first, unaided migration north to WI in as little as six weeks, and they need time in Florida to learn how to be on their own.

Operation Migration in the air for the last time with ultralight-led whooping cranes; the final flight together with the Class of 2015.

Operation Migration in the air for the last time with ultralight-led whooping cranes; the final flight together with the Class of 2015. This photo is by Karen Willes, who has photographed the ultralight-led cranes’ arrivals at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge every year since 2009.  She was in Georgia, January 30th, to capture this dramatic shot of pilot Richard van Heuvelen and the six Class of 2015 cranes. Photo used with permission. (Can you see two birds, flying just off the right wingtip?)  

By some good fortune, there were veteran whooper watchers and photographers from Tallahassee, who traveled to southwestern Georgia when OM and the cranes made their second last flight. And that’s the one that, as it turns out, is the true final flight of Operation Migration and its ultralight-led whooping crane program. See the photo above, captured by Karen Willes, of this historic moment in the long campaign to reintroduce a second flock of migrating whooping cranes.

The Release of the Class of 2015

The last six ultralight-led cranes are now in the fourth and final phase of their training for real life – the “release phase.” Think of the phases this way: from hatching at Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center until their transfer to Wisconsin in early summer they were in the pre-flight training phase. In Wisconsin throughout the summer, they were in full flight training phase, and in the fall they left on migration to Florida, following the ultralights – the learning migration phase.

This fourth phase involves their release into an enclosed 4-acre marshy area of St. Mark’s NWR. They have their freedom to fly in and out of it, but their comings and goings continue to be monitored by a small staff of silent, costumed crane handlers. There are several fine posts at OM’s Field Journal right now that describe in great detail what is happening in the fourth phase.

The Stressful Process of Banding Whoopers:

The 2015 chicks were released at St. Marks Saturday, Feb. 6, and the first really important thing to happen to them after that, was the process of banding – during which identification bands and tiny tracking transmitters are attached to the legs of each bird. The cranes were kept in a small holding pen until the banding on Tuesday, Feb. 9th, and returned there for a few days following so they could acclimate, and be closely observed.

“Banding is always a stressful time for birds and crew,” OM’s Brooke Pennypacker writes. “The stress can cause injury and even death, and unfortunately, has.” But not this year! In the post, “With This Ring . . . Brooke describes banding step-by-step, and introduces the banding crew of nine, which included Dr. Richard Urbanek, retired USFWS biologist, and Scott Tidmus, a manager of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and “long time friend and volunteer on the project.”

In addition to Brooke’s helpful explanations, the post (check it out) includes gorgeous portraits of the individual birds, each with their new color-coded bands and transmitters.

Take a Virtual Tour:

Other posts to see include Brooke’s “They’re Here! Whooping Crane Socialization,” in which he describes the interactions between the six chicks and four older adult birds that are happily hanging out at the pen this year. And Heather Ray’s word & picture tour of St. Mark’s NWR Release Pen. It is a virtual visit to an area the public can never see.

Where the Wild-hatched Chicks Are:  W10-15 and W18-15

Last year’s bumper crop of chicks that were hatched in the wild was unlike anything ever seen before in this reintroduction project – 24 chicks were hatched in and around Necedah National Wildlife Refuge during the spring of 2015. It was phenomenal! But the bad news that followed that best-ever nesting season is that only three of those chicks survived to fledge and one of those fledglings died on the refuge, of a respiratory infection, before migration.

So where are the two that did survive and migrate with their families?

Crane tracker Hillary Thompson recently encountered both families. In late January she blogged about finding the family group, female 9-03 and male 3-04, with their chick, w18-15, at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. On February 3rd, she recorded the thrill of finding w10-15 alive and well with its family group (female 25-09 and male 2-04) in Kentucky.

Hillary was on the staff of the International Crane Foundation, from 2012 through 2014, “. . . and still haven’t quite left,” she writes on her blog’s “about” page. She is also currently working on a master’s degree from Clemson University”s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation.

Here is a bit more about the crane parents raising the wild chicks:

Detailed biographical records for each crane, which are kept by Journey North, make this report possible.

The female, 9-03, and her mate, 3-04, are one of the most successful parenting partnerships among the Wisconsin cranes, having now raised 3 chicks to fledge. In addition to w18-15, they were the parents of w1-10, who died in November 2013 after 3 and a half years of life, and w3-13 who died in December 2013 while on her first migration with the parents.

The pair raising w10-15 are a 2004 male (#2-04) and 2009 female (#25-09). The male of this pair has achieved his new status as whooping crane father after 3 mates and many almost-a-dad experiences. He and his first mate, 46-07 successfully hatched a chick in both 2011 and 2012, though neither survived to fledge and his mate died in August, 2012.

With a new mate, female 8-09, he successfully fostered the parent-reared 24-13, during fall 2013 and into the next spring. He and mate 8-09 had a successful nest in 2014, but their nesting ended sadly with the discovery of her death in mid-April. Male 2-04 mated again before the end of summer, and with his current partner, 25-09, successfully fostered another parent-reared chick, 27-14.

The pair and their fostered chick were back at Necedah NWR by March 31st last spring, and the successful foster parents soon had their very own newly hatched wild chick. Hopes are high for both surviving wild chicks, #10-15 and #18-15, that both will live long, and each will become a source for future Wisconsin whooping cranes.

And Here Are the Rest of the Chicks of 2015

Eight chicks that hatched in captivity in 2015, and designated for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes, were raised at the International Crane Foundation for the Direct Autumn Release program. This year they are designated #61 through #68-15. (I’ve written before about this release method; this post describes its mission and methods.)

Locating the DAR birds:

The eight have all been reported on migration and the whereabouts is known for all but one of them. That one, #64-15, was recorded having left on migration with a large group of sandhill cranes “a few days before November 24. Her signal was last heard as she traveled over Madison, WI . . .” (from the biographical notes kept by The Journey North).

A group of five of these 2015 DARs left Horicon NWR completely on their own, December 19th – not with sandhill or whooping cranes. They are #s 61, 62, 63, 65, and 67, and they were reported in an update from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) as located for a while in McHenry County, IL; #65-15 soon split from the group and followed a group of sandhills to the Goose Pond area of southern Indiana. The other four continued southwest, and are located on the border of Randolph County, IL and Sainte Genevieve County, MO.

Here is the location of the other two 2015 DAR birds: #68 went with sandhills to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in southern Indiana, and #66 followed Sandhills there, and then on to Lake County, in Florida.

The Parent-Reared birds go it alone this year:

The two Parent-Reared birds of 2015 – neither of them in a foster family of whooping crane parents – have been tracked to Wheeler NWR in AL (#14-15) and St. Martin County, LA ( #20-15). (See Can Captive Whooping Cranes Raise a Chick for the Wild? for more information about the Parent-Reared release method.)


Keeping Track of Whooping Cranes: February 2016, Part 1

It’s February of 2016 and there is plenty of news to report about whooping cranes, in general, and the cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP), in particular. This is Part 1.

Below you will find:

News of the cow pond whooper in Tallahassee, FL; George Archibald’s thoughts on USFWS decision to discontinue the ultralight program; Signs of spring, in spite of snow, at the International Crane Foundation; an update on the charges filed in the shooting death of two whooping cranes in Texas.

Big Bird’s Comings and Goings at The Cow Pond

As if there was ever any doubt, whooping crane 11-09 (#11, hatched in 2009), the now single male of last year’s Cow Pond Pair, has become a true celebrity. Or, as his champion, Karen Willes, describes him – “a true ambassador for crane conservation.”

Since his arrival at the cow pond near Tallahassee on Christmas Day, he has attracted a growing and intensely loyal fan base who gather there daily to observe and photograph him. Fans who can’t get there, eagerly check the Facebook postings of Karen Willes to assure themselves of his well-being.

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where is affectionately known as Big Bird. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where he is affectionately known as Big Bird. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Karen posts regular updates about this whooper (who, unlike the majority of cranes in the EMP, has earned a nick name: Big Bird). This is the fifth year that Karen has been watching 11-09, or Big Bird, (and, until this year, his mate 15-09). Karen’s initial interest in photographing the whooper pair quickly grew into a personal and demanding citizen science project; this year she has been faithfully documenting Big Bird’s interactions with other wildlife, his daily habits, and timing his intermittent departures and arrivals.

Migration North

Because his most recent departure was last Friday morning, February 19th, Karen is convinced that “Big Bird,” is now on his northward journey – migrating home to Wisconsin. (Indeed, some sandhill cranes are already being documented back in Wisconsin.)

The educational signs which Karen has had printed and installed near the cow pond at her own expense, have now been removed from the area, and stored for next year. The signs tell visitors about endangered whooping cranes, about what a rare opportunity it is to see such an endangered wild creature, and about the need to keep a respectful distance while viewing him through scopes and camera lenses.

“We have had over 50 days with Big Bird!” Karen posted this week. “Hope he returns in December with a new mate!”

Highlights of Big Bird’s Visit

Here is a brief summary of a few of the highlights Karen has posted about those 50 days:

– Though sweet, his arrival on Christmas Day came with just a hint of the bittersweet: he was alone. His former mate was in Alabama, with a different male whooping crane (11-02). His first days at the cow pond were punctuated by morning calls that some interpreted as his yearning and searching for the missing 15-09. Visitors to the cow pond, and commenters on Karen’s Facebook stream, expressed a frequent hope that he soon finds a new mate.

– Lonely, though he may have seemed at times, he was never really alone at the cow pond! There was the occasional stand-off with the resident cows – in which the cows backed off. At various times he shared the pond and surrounding fields with a rich assortment of other bird visitors, including ducks, Canadian geese, sandhill cranes, ibis, and wood storks.

A collage of Big Bird at the cow pond, with visitors, including the 9 sandhill cranes in top photo. (By Karen Willes, used with permission)

A collage of Big Bird at the cow pond, with visitors, including the 9 sandhill cranes in top photo, ibis, bottom left, and geese, right. (By Karen Willes, used with permission)

– On January 5th nine sandhill cranes joined Big Bird at the cow pond. As they flew overhead, the whooping crane called to the sandhills and the group reversed course, landed, and spent the night with him. Karen described Big Bird as “the pied piper,” leading the group up a hill in the morning and leading their take-off; he flew north with them, but then “circled back and went south, calling as he flew. Guess he was just helping them get on their way,” Karen posted.

– Some nights in February, Big Bird began to spend nights elsewhere, prompting great concern among the new craniacs closely following the news about him. Beginning February 7th he was gone about five nights; for two of those nights, he was discovered at another pond on private land inaccessible to visitors.

George Archibald’s Positive Message

Mixed in with her photos and news of Big Bird, Karen Willes Facebook stream tracks and reports other whooping crane news, as well. On January 22nd, Big Bird, the cow pond, and the human craniacs that gather there received a visit from a different kind of celebrity – a human one! George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, stopped by the cow pond on a chilly afternoon (for Florida) to meet and visit with them.

Dr. George Archibald with Karen Willes, January 2016. (Photo by Claire Timm)

Dr. George Archibald with Karen Willes, January 2016. (Photo by Claire Timm, used with permission)

Dr. Archibald shared with them the just-released decision by USFWS to discontinue the ultralight program. Karen wrote about his reaction to the end of a program she knows he supports. “As he explained the decision, he immediately looked for a positive outcome – that of ICF working with Operation Migration to put more cranes in the company of other cranes so that more of them will be together.”

More cranes in closer proximity, might be one solution to the problem of helping the EMP become self-sustaining. Karen wrote of her own belief in this possibility: “Now let’s pull together to support the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration in all their continued reintroduction endeavors to produce more cranes so that the EMP can become self-sustaining . . .”

More News from the International Crane Foundation

Always at work on behalf of cranes all over the world, the International Crane Foundation provides special attention in Wisconsin to the two crane species that can be found here, and throughout North America. Their monitoring of the now-numerous sandhill species led to this news, reported by ICF on Feb. 21:

“Spring is in the air – we sighted our first returning Sandhill Crane this weekend!”

And for Valentine’s weekend, an ICF report featured a pair from their captive whooping crane population, dancing in the snow!

“Love is in the air; despite our single digit temperatures, breeding season is fast approaching at our headquarters. Old and new couples are beginning to dance and call. . .”

Shooter Will Be Charged Under the Endangered Species Act

Finally, here is some news about the charges filed for the killing of two whooping cranes from the non-migrating Louisiana population. Both cranes were shot and killed near Beaumont, TX on Dec. 10, 2015. Trey Joseph Frederick, 18, of Beaumont was charged with the killings early in January. He was first charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but the case was refiled, and ICF reports that Frederick is now charged under the Endangered Species Act, thus likely facing stiffer penalties.

A Vision Come True in the Kettle Moraine

Here’s a bit more about the beginnings of the Ice Age Trail, the preservation of the Kettle Moraine, and Ray Zillmer, the man who had the vision to imagine these gifts as public resources. (The Badger & the Whooping Crane featured this story in posts, January 12th and 18th.)  He also had the stamina to pursue that vision until it began to take shape.

MT 2009 04 Image 01

A volunteer work group for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, building and maintaining the trail.

I’m grateful to the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, for publishing this longer version of Ray Zillmer’s story in their own Wisconservation Blog!

A New Chapter for Wisconsin Whooping Cranes

A new chapter for whooping cranes opens today, as Operation Migration’s last and final ultralight-led migration wrapped up in Florida yesterday. For OM, and its six young Class of 2015 whoopers, this has been the longest migration ever. As with the fourteen that preceded this one, it has had its own stories and dramas that define it.

The unexpected ending of this particular migration – finally boxing up the birds just 25 miles short of their winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge – might seem an ignoble exit strategy, but not really. It was a necessary strategy demanding extra-stiff-upper-lip-heroics from the crew that loved and lived and flew with the birds. It was just one more small detail in the drama of reintroducing an endangered species, long absent, from a particular landscape. And it was a necessity so that things could move along to the next necessary step.

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more time. Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Yltralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more time. Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

The prepared pensite was waiting for them at St. Marks, and there were people from Tallahassee and all over the region hoping to get a glimpse of the cranes and ultralights flying overhead. But mostly, for the birds, there was the calendar, saying “it’s February!” The birds needed to be at home in the wetland pen  where they are lightly monitored, and they will learn a few things about life on their own in preparation for their NEXT migration: their first independent flight north to Wisconsin. That migration will begin sometime in March, or possibly, April.

You can totally immerse yourself in more of the drama of this story at The Operation Migration Field Journal. Look especially at the posts where OM’s gifted pilots turn into gifted writers, as well. This is where you’ll learn from Brooke’s long musing report of his last flight (Day 102 . . . The Last Waltz) that “denial” is really just “hope spelled backwards.” (Who could not say ‘Amen!’ to that?)

You can learn about the competitive, not-really-a-team-player bird, #2-15, in Driving Miss Crazy. Or Joe’s description of clearing the trees at the end of the runway last Saturday, only to have his ultralight turned sideways by a blast of wind, and a few more thoughts about the conclusion of his avian aviator career – one of the world’s most unique job titles.

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

And read today’s post from Heather, “Carry On . . .” explaining how she joined up with OM 18 years ago, and began to post online about the work; how soon after people began following, and thus, “Craniacs were born!” And her final tribute to the reason for it all:

” . . .Whooping cranes – Regal. Noble. Majestic. Magnificent. Fly free my feathered friends. Live long. . .” she wrote.

Like all good stories, the new chapter for whooping cranes will begin with dozens of pressing questions. Like these: Without ultralight flights, what IS Operation Migration’s new contribution to the effort? What kind of future is there for the 100 whooping cranes in the eastern flyway stretching from Wisconsin to Florida? Will the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) hold? Will WCEP continue to track and monitor these birds?

And:  What happens now to the costume-rearing technique? What IS really known about these Wisconsin whoopers’ so-called “lack of parenting skills?” Will the hundreds – no, thousands, probably – of craniacs spontaneously created as a byproduct of this project, remain tuned in? Where are the two new wild whooper families now? The ones that were sighted by Wisconsin birders repeatedly last fall at Necedah NWR?

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015. (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015.    (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

And, for that matter, just what IS going on with the weather – and is it “weather” or is it “climate?” – the thing that seems to have grounded flight after flight this year; and last year too, come to think of it? And, oh, by the way, what about the Whooping Crane Festival? Will there be one again in Princeton, Wisconsin, come September?

So many questions today! And these are the building blocks of tomorrow’s stories, waiting to be told.

Ultralight-led Migration Ends: Will a New Role Begin for OM?

So. Joe Duff had this to say this morning

                                                             “That’s All She Wrote”

Yes, it IS the bad news that every craniac fervently hoped not to hear this week:  the end of the ultralight flights – and Operation Migration leading a new class of young whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida each year.

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. The Class of 2009 was one of the very biggest of UL classes. One of the females of this class did raise a chick to fledge in 2015. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permissioin)

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. This was one of the very biggest of UL classes, and includes some well-known birds.  Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. This past year one of the females of this class did raise a wild chick to fledge, #10-15. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permission)

Joe Duff wrote a spectacularly detailed, clear summary of the week’s events leading to this decision, and he dispatched it swiftly so we wouldn’t be left waiting; and wondering. He described the science being looked at as possible answers to the EMP’s slow progress – or as some think, no progress –  in becoming a self-sustaining population.

(What would a self- sustaining population be? One that reproduces itself.  Why can’t the EMP reproduce itself?  That’s where the scientific theories that Joe wrote about, are needed; the theories that are being developed; and will need to be studied and tested.)

Joe also said this: “. . . (during the meetings last week)  we focused on ways to keep released birds with adult role models for as early, and as long as possible “

Somewhere in this Decision is a New Role for OM

And he said:  “There are many ways that Operation Migration can serve within WCEP, including developing a new, less invasive release technique at White River. Those options need to be explored, and expanded.  He mentioned “moving forward” and “clearing hurdles.”      

This WCEP decision, and Joe’s response to it, trigger a number of questions waiting to be asked, and I did get one answer earlier today when OM responded to question/comment I posted on their Facebook page.  

Me:  I hope this means you aren’t all going away!? And OM responded:  “Definitely not going away!” That’s an answer that is definitely going to console some disappointed followers of OM through the Field Jounral, Crane Cam and more.

Others Comment on the End of Ultralight Migration

Here is just a very small sample of comments left on Joe’s post today:

From Mindy:   “You have made such a contribution to the Eastern population and the whole species.  No one can ever take that away.”

Willie said:  “It is rare to see such a level of commitment by humans to save another species . . . I will continue to support Operation Migration any way that I can.”

And Mike:  “A sad result for such a well-coordinated effort. I live in Hardin County, TN and twice during the last three years I have witnessed a flock of the birds migrating north on their own. I thought how lucky I was to see something so rare.”

Here’s Denise:  “Heartbroken. But how can we help support OM? Please let us know.”

“Making a Huge Mistake,” says Wildlife Biologist

And finally, this lengthy quote is from comments left by Robert, a wildlife biologist, retired from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

“For years I have been tracking the efforts to introduce a second, self-sustaining population of whoopers,” said Robert, and his words, the ones that follow here, form a pretty good summary of what The Badger and the Whooping Crane has been thinking. “It is obvious,” he continued, “that the Eastern flock is having issues with raising recruits to fledgling stage. However, to just give up on the aircraft-led migration seems at this stage  to be rather short-sighted . . . I have heard of no other methods that comes close to the OM record of successfully getting birds into a second migrating population.

“So the Eastern flock will just be abandoned to wither away like the Florida non-migrating population while birds are pumped into Louisiana with the same or worse problems.  . . . I just think the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is making a HUGE mistake in canceling OM without a better answer in place.”

Whooping Cranes Wait in Georgia while WCEP Meets in Wisconsin

Just about every craniac on the planet must be wishing he or she could be a fly on the wall during the meetings of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership this week.  These meetings, somewhere in Wisconsin, have been planned for sometime now, to work out the details of the partnership’s vision for the next 5-year plan for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. Certainly, for the craniacs, their hearts are there, even though their eyes and ears can’t be.    

What’s next for the Eastern Migratory Population – the 100 or so wild whooping cranes that now call Wisconsin home? That’s what’s being decided.  And the fate of the ultralight-led migrations that Operation Migration has provided (for anywhere from 6 to 20 whooper chicks) each year since 2001, is one of the many items – and a big one, most likely – that are on the agenda.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

                                Grounded? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

This year there are six young OM-trained whooping cranes  – almost adults now – and they are waiting in southern Georgia, a hop, skip and a jump (140 miles, to be precise) away from their target destination, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. But the birds will wait at least until next Sunday, while the pilots and senior staff of Operation Migration participate in the meetings of the partnership they help direct.

Writing at OM’s Field Journal, the group’s Head Pilot Joe Duff outlined the tough choices necessitated by the conflict between the ongoing migration and the WCEP meetings. In it, he talks about the stresses of the weather-delayed, longer-than-usual migration: these include stresses on staff, the need for added volunteers, the strain for hosts that have agreed to provide space for motor homes, trucks and vans, and a safe and well-hidden place for a temporary pen for the birds – all for an uncertain amount of time.

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Yltralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

And Duff talks about the effect on the birds, waiting in the pen for the right weather, and the human plans to coincide. Will they be eager to follow the ultralights after a long stay in one place?  Or will their flight be numerous attempts at a crane rodeo – rounding them up in the air and on the ground – when the right day finally comes again?  In the end, Duff and his crew made the only decision – “Standing Down Till Sunday . . .”  they probably could.

And what will there be to report when Sunday arrives? Watching this reintroduction of whooping cranes into the wild, using Wisconsin as their nesting territory and Florida, ideally, as a wintering one, you could see the project as a race – a marathon, for sure. And the finish line seems to be getting close, but isn’t quite in sight yet.

There were plans made in 2011 to introduce the cranes into a new nesting territory in Wisconsin, and the success of that plan hasn’t begun to be tested. In a few more years, it would seem to this non-scientist, that the scientific studies might be expected to flow from this new breeding area.

Although ultralight-led migration is just one component of the re-introduction, it was the essential component at the beginning, and has never stopped being a key component. And the pilots and support staff of Operation Migration have always done a job for the birds that has seemed over and above the call of duty – again and again. To give up on this re-introduction and the WCEP partnership now – with so much already invested and so many successful components in place – would seem like . . . well, just giving up. Who’d want to do that? Hopefully, though, that won’t be what happens.

Ed. note:  If you’d like a fuller explanation of the WCEP partnership, Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes is one resource for it.    


Monday Morning Blogging: Ray Zillmer and the Ice Age Trail

This is one of a series of posts about conservation losses in Wisconsin in 2015.  It looks at the loss of state funding for a dozen or more conservation non-profit organizations. This is my attempt to learn more about each of the organizations, and to write about their history, their programs and services, – what they do for the state of Wisconsin.

Not too long ago I found an “old friend” I thought was missing – it was a book – 50 Hikes in Wisconsin by John and Ellen Morgan! It fell open in my hands to the dedication page: “To the Ice Age Park and Trail Alliance and its army of unwavering volunteers . . . .”  It ends with “In Memory of Ray Zillmer.” I was instantly reminded that yes, I did want to write about the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

I wanted to write about them, in part, because they are one of the conservation-minded groups to lose state support in 2015, but also because they are derived directly from the single-minded perseverance of one man with an idea. And single-minded though he could be, in pursuit of an idea, that man – Raymond T. Zillmer (1887-1960) – left more than one story to be told.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Zillmer was a lifelong Milwaukeean – except for his student years at Madison and one at Harvard – and an intrepid adventurer. He was a husband and father, and active in civic organizations and the state and local Bar Associations. No doubt though, it was his involvement with the Izaak Walton League that best reflected what drove Ray Zillmer: a passion to get outdoors. And not just to hike or camp.

Zillmer went mountaineering, and exploring, and trekked through unmapped parts of British Columbia for 2 and 3 weeks at a time, year after year in the 1930s through the mid-40s. Then he published long accounts of these trips, such as “The Exploration of the Source of the Thompson River in British Columbia,” in American Alpine Journal, and others in the Canadian Alpine Journal. At the end of his life the American Alpine Journal said this about Zillmer:

“Exploration and elucidation of new country were more important in his eyes than mere climbing, and he carried out punishing journeys at an age when many another would have sought easier activity.”

As intense as those experiences must have been, Zillmer is also credited by the Morgans (in Fifty Hikes,) and others, with a deep appreciation for the natural wonders of the world wherever he could find them.  “In particular,” write the Morgans, ” Zillmer was intensely enamored with the rambling hilly area just west of Milwaukee where he would go on weekends with his family for adventuring.” This favorite haunt of Ray Zillmer’s would become the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

As early as 1933, Zillmer was named “Man of the Year,” by the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League for his work in the development of the Kettle Moraine State Park.   From 1941-49 he was chairman of the Kettle Moraine Committee for the Izaak Walton League of Milwaukee  and from 1954-58 he held the same role for the state chapter.

There is much in those years that is covered extensively by another blogger, Drew Hanson, (also a hiker, formerly of the IATA staff) at Pedestrian View. Hanson writes:  “During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources . . . to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. . . .(Zillmer) was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate.”

As one gets to know more about Zillmer, it becomes obvious that during those years he also began to see the conservation of the Kettle Moraine as the most important work of his life. He said exactly this in a letter, July 1, 1948, to Acting Governor Oscar Rennenbohm, Again, from Drew Hanson’s blog, Pedestrian View:

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

“Zillmer introduced himself and the Kettle Moraine State Forest: ‘I have given a great deal of my time to the Kettle Moraine project. . . . I would like you to give consideration to extending the purchase area so that the northern and southern areas are connected to form a line 100 miles long. As far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned this will be one of your most important acts.  I consider my own efforts in the promotion of this project the most important contribution in my life’. “

Sometime in the next decade, Zillmer’s personal vision for the Kettle Moraine began to grow into something larger. Instead of just a state project he began to hope for the creation of a national park – the Kettle Moraine as its nucleus – that would include a long, 500-mile hiking trail tracing the outline of the presence of the glaciers as they receded from the land. In December of 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation – the forerunner of the Ice Age Trail Alliance of today.

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

Of course he couldn’t have known then, but in that action he was passing the torch to the future. Zillmer was dead two years later, and from that day to this, the story of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail has grown by many chapters, including detours and delays, but with the torch always being carried forward by the board members of the IATA, by its staff, and by the volunteers and hikers by the millions.

With Zillmer’s death, the Milwaukee Journal reminded the people of Wisconsin and those in the conservation movement nationally that they were “deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes . . .” had become legend.